I’ve got an article in the latest New Yorker (not online) on the neuroscience of insight. I begin the article with the harrowing story of Wag Dodge and the Mann Gulch fire, before describing the research of Mark Jung Beeman, John Kounios and Earl Miller:
There is something inherently mysterious about moments of insight. Wag Dodge, for instance, could never explain where his idea for the escape fire came from. (“It just seemed the logical thing to do” was all he could muster.) His improbable survival has become one of those legendary stories of insight, like Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” when he saw his bathwater rise, or Isaac Newton watching an apple fall from a tree and then formulating his theory of gravity. Such tales all share a few essential features, which psychologists and neuroscientists use to define “the insight experience.” The first of these is the impasse: before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a mental block. Wag Dodge spent minutes running from the fire, although he was convinced that doing so was futile. Then, when the insight arrived, Dodge immediately realized that the problem was solved. This is another key feature of insight: the feeling of certainty that accompanies the idea. Dodge didn’t have time to think about whether his plan. He simply knew that it would.
Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has spent the past fifteen years trying to figure out what happens inside the brain when people have an insight. “It’s one of those defining features of the human mind, and yet we have no idea how or why it happens,” he told me. Insights have often been attributed to divine intervention, but, by mapping the epiphany as a journey between cortical circuits, Jung Beeman wants to purge the insight experience of its mystery.
The article goes on to describe some of the processing differences between the right and left hemispheres (the right hemisphere seems to be the source for most of our Aha! moments) and the role of the prefrontal cortex in orchestrating brain activity. Here are a few of the papers I mention.